By Nicole Thornton
* Title taken from a 2004 interview with John Fraser, psychologist and environmentalist.
The mental health and emotional wellbeing of environmental and sustainability professionals
Who looks after the health of those who look after our natural and social environment? Why do we care and why is it important?
These questions have been bubbling away in my head for the last few years. It stemmed from my own experience as an environmental scientist struggling with climate-related clinical depression for nearly four years. My depression was triggered by the lost political opportunities that came out of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 2009. It was also influenced by watching friends, colleagues and peers struggle with their own feelings and motivations about the potential losses to the natural ecosystems and human communities that they love and study.
I felt like a fool having “climate depression” (as I called it) as I knew of no-one who had depression that was connected to climate change. I am familiar with depression and other mental health issues as it runs in both sides of my family. I have many friends who have depression, so I do not have any issues with talking about it, accepting that it is an illness, or understanding the drivers, causes and symptoms that are associated with poor mental health. My depression wasn’t about self or self-worth. I wasn’t suicidal (I was just a hermit who had no energy or desire to go anywhere or visit people). Who gets depression from external factors? It wasn’t until I was halfway through it that I realised I had depression at all, and even longer before I connected that it was due to my complete loss of hope in our lack of real action on climate change. I had come to believe, in my gut and my heart, that we could not save ourselves and that we would be dead in a few generations.
This utter loss of hope led to a profound sense of loss and grief which still upsets me when I think about it, even now, a couple of years since my depression lifted.
Why do we need a shrink?
So, who cares if environmental and sustainability professionals are feeling the blues?
During my conversations with peers, some have questioned why this conversation matters at all. We should just be more positive, and stop focusing on the negative. For some, this no doubt works.
However, for many, ignoring our feelings and thoughts about issues which are important to us doesn’t make them go away. It just buries them. And environmental professionals are just like everyone else; we can’t do our job properly if we are mentally and emotionally sick.
Some symptoms that occur when we don’t look after our emotional and mental health include:
Some of the factors that people mentioned which influenced their mental state included:
What conversations are already happening?
There are some great conversations and resources already happening that concern our mental and emotional health in this area, but they can be hard to find if you don't know where to look.
These conversations include:
Personal experiences have motivated some (such as Ann Murugan) to create businesses which encourage people to talk about mental health in environmental professions and empower people, via workshops and other tools, to make a positive impact in our world.
Even the Australian Psychology Society takes this topic seriously by showcasing psychology’s role in addressing climate change and environmental threats. They have created an excellent site which lists a growing number of papers and organisations who are dealing with this issue. Psychology for a Safe Climate are doing excellent work getting the psychology profession in Australia to think about and do research in this area.
These groups and individuals inspire and empower me. My own search for information and support during my depression turned up very little because I was using the wrong search terms. And I didn’t know who to talk to who could lead me in the right direction. How do you get the right answers if you don’t know how to ask the right questions? Plus, I felt foolish talking about my illness when I knew of no other person who had climate-related depression. It was extremely isolating and meant my recovery took longer than necessary.
Moving the conversation into the public domain
Now that my health has improved, I often bring up this topic in conversation to see what people say, and have been surprised at the number of people who have had similar experiences (where were they when I needed them!!??). And nearly all of them gave overwhelmingly positive responses to my suggestion of creating a casual support group, writing a paper about this topic, or spreading the conversation via social media. It is empowering to acknowledge and accept how we feel, especially when we share with others.
Their response shows there are many people like me in the world, and we need an easier way to connect and support each other. This is why we started the Climate Wellbeing Network. Each of us in the organising committee felt a similar need to do something in this space, and to fill an obvious gap.
This blog is my start in getting more of us connected, and progressing the conversation into our professions and into mainstream media. It’s not much, but it’s another step in the journey.
So, who wants to join me for the journey and the conversation?
* * *
Nicole Thornton has worked as an environmental scientist for more than 20 years. She has had a diverse career which has ranged from sustainable and outdoor education and ecotourism in Australia, Canada and the UK (her favourite being the Daintree and Cape Tribulation rainforest in far north Queensland) to household water research and social practices during the recent Millenium drought in Australia; from water sensitive cities to liveable and sustainable households and communities. Her interests are varied and include good food, stories and conversation, getting out and exploring nature, traveling, and meeting new people. Oh, and actually stopping to smell the roses whenever she walks past.
From Rosemary Faire
Picture this scene: a small group of people wearing decorative masks are seated on the ground in a circle in silence. A closer look reveals some masks that resemble animals such as possums and bears, some birds, insects, some that look like trees which are adorned with twigs and leaves, and still others that appear to be landscapes, mountains, rivers and clouds.
The "bear" begins to speak. "Welcome, Beings, to our Council. We are here to discuss the gravest of challenges facing us. We are here to listen to one another. Each of us will have the opportunity to speak and be heard. I ask you not to interrupt one another with advice or suggestions, but if so moved, to utter "I hear you" or other words of support. When all have spoken we will open ourselves to receiving and sharing any wisdom that may come to us about how to deal with our challenges...."
Wind back the clock.
A day before, these people had come to a Council of All Beings workshop. They were people with one thing in common: they were concerned about the changes that human beings are making to the Earth's ecosystems and climate. They had come together from all over Sydney. Some were already friends, others were strangers.
As the first day proceeded, they had engaged in playful experiential processes to get to know one another, settle into their breathing and their bodily sensing. They had used their imaginations to connect with the movements of their ancestors, the primates, mammals, even lizards and fish. This was called "Evolutionary Remembering".
They had shared with one another the feelings that they had brought with them, now safe to emerge, of sadness, anger, fear or emptiness. They had been gently guided into experiencing the gift which may be found under such feelings. Gifts that empower.
Then they had spent some time in the bush, finding a natural "ally" there, a Being that might have something to say...And they came back to the group with ideas and decorations with which to create their ally's mask. The mask that they would ritually put on the next day...
* * *
Climate Change Facts - Climate Change Feelings
How does a Deep Ecology workshop such as the Council of All Beings contribute to our engagement with climate change?
The more facts we learn about climate change and its potential consequences, the more likely we are to go into defensive, self-protective responses such as denial, or paralysing responses of despair and giving up. If we avoid these extremes we might find ourselves getting REALLY ACTIVE to the extent that we eventually burn ourselves out!
Deep Ecology goes behind, underneath, the facts, into the psychological and spiritual dimensions of our relationship with other life on this planet-home of ours. It helps us to refind, and really experience, our ecological self: how we are actually part of an evolutionary process, how we are embedded in our ecosystems. We get a glimpse of what it could be like for our fellow Beings on the planet.
Such a workshop also facilitates our coming together to share the 'inconvenient' feelings that are not safe or appropriate to express in everyday conversations with family or friends. And through that shared bravery, we find colleagues with which we can 'go forth' as a movement.
Beyond the scientific facts of climate change are our human choices on how to respond. Participating in a Deep Ecology community gives us the resources to turn our deep caring into sustainable action.
If participating in a Deep Ecology community feels like the next step for your self care, register your interest on our home page and you will be sent information about upcoming workshops.
Dr Rosemary Faire: I am a Sydney-based expressive arts therapist and adult educator desiring to support climate change engagement and resilience in transition. My work-life journey has taken me through biological sciences (epigenetics), embodied education, music and movement therapies and deep ecology, and I'm keen to facilitate the formation of creativity-based support groups and peer supervision among those who are concerned about our planetary sustainability.
Members of the Climate Wellbeing Network regularly post here.